Perhaps even more so than The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s financial and ideological investment in celluloid film pays off in Red Rocket. His latest film, which is Baker’s breeziest and funniest movie yet, has plenty of beautifully shot colour to wow audiences with, while staying close to the moral greys he has always fixated on. The experiment succeeds, even if its light tone would have us ruing the jet-black drama Baker has mastered in previous work.
Simon Rex stars as Mikey Saber, a has-been porn star so down on his luck he’s forced to return to Texas City, east Texas, to move in with his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law. Mikey’s gruelling bus journey and black eye rightly perturb estranged ex Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her senior citizen mother, but Mikey’s LA-practiced charm and unrivalled skills in the bedroom soon endear him once again to Lexi.
What Lexi and her mother don’t understand is that their home is just a stepping stone for Mikey, who wants to return to the glory of America’s multi-billion-dollar porn industry and the 20 million-plus Pornhub hits he amassed during a decade-long career. When he meets doe-eyed red-head Strawberry at a local donut place, he thinks he can make her a star – and forge his own path back west.
If things were under Mikey’s control, life would be easy. But Lexi’s own needs, Strawberry’s minor status (she’s 17), and the suboptimal temp job he has dealing drugs to local construction workers stretch Mikey in more directions than he can handle. His incredible capacity for self-delusion and untrammelled ambition help him go far, but – as Baker showed us in The Florida Project – not all dreams come true.
Mikey’s compulsive lying has provoked parallels to Trump, who appears numerous times in Red Rocket via TV news appearances (it’s based sometime during autumn 2016) and the odd MAGA memorabilia. That doesn’t do justice to the character’s emotional complexity or the nuance of Rex’s performance, which is surely career best. Like Adam Sandler, he has shown a brilliant skill in exploiting his own affable persona for a self-aware and dramatically able performance.
Even still, it’s hard not to read Trump in most of Baker’s characters. He gets to a shallow instinctiveness within us like few other filmmakers. Tied to Baker’s continued interest in the realities of American working-class life, Red Rocket certainly has its finger on the pulse of Trump Country. A tough coastal suburb of Houston, Texas City county voted more than 60% for Trump in 2016 and by a slightly bigger margin in 2020. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to find out virtually every character in Red Rocket voted for him, even the Donut Hole’s no-nonsense Asian-American owner Phan.
Red Rocket feels less like a portrait of our times and more like a glimpse at the Trump era, which is no problem. Baker has clearly been thinking about politics and society in a nuanced way over the past four years, and would rather depict a community during a specific timespan than speculate about the present.
His only misstep, however, is the overly playful tone of his movie. The Florida Project connected us with the childhood of its characters while maintaining a serious feeling, whereas Red Rocket leans just a little too heavily into the inherent immaturity of Mikey. That prevents it being the Boogie Nights-style portrait of a place and personality type I suspect Baker is going for.
Even still, it’s a more than impressive couple years’ work from all involved. The comedy is consistently strong and Simon Rex’s performance deserves all the plaudits he will or won’t be nominated for. Maybe Mikey will get a taste of real glory once and for all.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release Red Rocket later this year.